Several criticisms have been leveled at the Inheritance Cycle in terms of story, characterization, and even strategical decisions. But little has been said about the magic (other than that it steals its mechanics from Earthsea), which is odd, because it is frankly one of the most absurdly described things in Christopher Paolini’s work. In fact, I would say it is my main criticism of the story, and would hardly complain about anything else. I’m going to focus on some of the basic mechanics and ideas about magic (specifically, three) in the first book, and how they’re violated or disregarded throughout the story.
When we first learn about magic through Brom’s infodump, we learn three things: first, that the Riders specifically get their magic from dragons as opposed to any other source; second, that it costs the same amount of energy to do something by magic as doing it manually; and third, that magic was taught by giving students impossible tasks until they instinctively learned magic.
Admittedly, the first, when it was brought up, sounds promising enough:
“…Many think the king’s magical powers come from the fact that he is a wizard or sorcerer. That’s not true; it is because he’s a Rider.”
“What’s the difference? Doesn’t the fact that I used magic make me a sorcerer?”
“Not at all! A sorcerer, like a Shade, uses spirits to accomplish his will. That is totally different from your power. Nor does that make you a magician, whose powers come without aid of spirits or a dragon. And you’re certainly not a witch or wizard, who get their powers from various potions and spells.”
- Eragon, page 144
Within this world, there are apparently several types of spellcasters—but these distinctions are never actually brought up again, with exception to the case of sorcerers. And of course, the problem with saying witches and wizards get their magic “from spells” is that pretty much any use of magic in the series is referred to as a “spell.” So that’s the same as saying a cook gets a kitchen by using a kitchen. I chalk this up to an underdeveloped idea, as I’ve never seen Paolini ever elaborate on it.
Then we get to the basic problem—where the hell does magic come from? Normally, this isn’t too much of an issue, but when so many spellcasters are characters, the fact that we have no idea where they get magic is somewhat jarring. Dragon Riders explicitly gain their magic by being bonded with a dragon, and sorcerers are implied to use methods similar to the magicians of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy:
“…sorcery is a dark and unseemly art. You should not seek to control other beings for you own gain. Even if you ignore the immorality of sorcery, it is an exceptionally dangerous and fiendishly complicated discipline. A magician requires at least three years of intensive study before he can hope to summon spirits and not have them possess him.
“Sorcery is not like other magics, Eragon; by it, you attempt to force incredibly powerful and hostile beings to obey your commands, beings who devote every moment of their captivity to finding a flaw in their bonds so that they can turn on you and subjugate you in revenge.”
- Brisingr, page 641
But even that suggests one must be a magician before becoming a sorcerer. Are magicians (without dragons) just born with magic then? From Oromis’s words, we get that it’s a kind of ability people have:
“You must keep in mind that the ability to use magic is exceedingly rare among the races. We elves are no exception, although we have a greater allotment of spellweavers than most…”
- Eldest, page 377
I call shenanigans on that whole “elf spellcasters are rare” thing, as every elf we see pretty much uses magic, but that aside, it seems like something people are born with. But that’s just a vague implication from something Oromis said. But is it genetic? God-given? Random? We have no idea. This wouldn’t be as weird if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many spellcasters in the series, and we have no idea how they got their powers.
But then things get confused much later in Eragon when we get this gem from Angela:
“I loathe Shades—they practice the most unholy magic, after necromancy.”
- Eragon, page 437
First, how can magic be “unholy”? It seems pretty obvious from the series that most of the magic performed isn’t good or evil, just a tool people use.
Secondly, Brom explicitly says people can’t be brought back from the dead, so the only assumption is that they reanimate the dead in a semblance of life… which would conflict with Magic Point 2, that you can’t spend more energy than the body has, as making a non-living body move around without a fully functioning set of organs and tissue would require a lot of energy.
Granted, there are possible explanations, such as using stored energy or drawing energy from other living organisms. Necromancy seems to be an obscure branch of magic, as it never comes up again, and Oromis himself even notes the energy-draining ability is “a secret that even Galbatorix may not know” (Eldest 539); so it’s entirely possible that’s what makes necromancy work.
But the point remains that Paolini hints at a very interesting idea and goes nowhere with it, one that takes work to make fit within the established canon.
Now to point number two: a spell should only cost as much energy as it would cost to do it manually. This is a handy little solution to limiting what it is a spellcaster can and can’t do, but a few problems come up, and one glaring problem: the very first time Eragon uses magic. When Eragon shouts “brisingr!”, it causes an explosion, and he passes out (again). It is a small explosion to be fair, and it does knock him out, but does the human body hold enough energy to produce an explosion?
The main problem with this system, though, is with spells that don’t do things a physical body can. Instantly starting a fire is one, but there are other things. Turning invisible, scrying, healing a wound, or blessing a child are not things the body can do, and yet these spells cost a specific amount of energy that is relatively low.
About that blessing, anyway—we’re going to cut to the quote from Brisingr and build from there (and I’m sorry, but it’s a bit of long one).
“The other method [for removing Elva’s curse] is to cast a spell that directly counteracts the effects of the original spell. It does not eliminate the original spell, but if done properly, it renders it harmless. With your permission, this is the method I intend to use.”
“A most elegant solution,” Angela proclaimed, “but who, pray tell, provides the continuous stream of energy needed to maintain this counterspell? And since someone must ask, what can go wrong with this particular method?”
Eragon kept his gaze fixed on Elva. “The energy will have to come from you,” he told her, pressing her hands with his. “It won’t be much, but it will still reduce your stamina by a certain amount. If I do this, you will never be able to run as far or lift as many pieces of firewood as someone who does not have a similar incantation leeching off them.”
“Why can’t you provide the energy?” asked Elva, arching an eyebrow. “You are the one who is responsible for my predicament, after all.”
“I would, but the farther away I got from you, the harder it would be to send the energy to you. And if I went too far—a mile, say, or maybe a bit more—the effort would kill me.”
- Brisingr, page 265
Make it through all that in one piece? Here’s basically what happens—Eragon sits down and explains to Elva (and the audience) that his counterspell will be one that directly counteracts his original curse on Elva instead of simply removing it (because he apparently can’t do that or something). Eragon makes a point that the counterspell would need a source of energy—that’s Elva. But that would imply that the spell Eragon cast in the first place required an energy source, but other than the initial loss of energy, it’s never mentioned that the juice is coming from anywhere.
In short, Elva’s curse is, as far as we can tell, continuously spending magical energy that is coming from nowhere. If this were made into a plot point, like, say, Eragon doesn’t know how to remove the curse because he has no idea where the energy is coming from, then it might be excusable. But it’s never even mentioned.
And speaking of energy paradoxes, the whole idea of wards is another paradox. If we follow what Brom says about magic, then holding a ward would be the same as manually protecting yourself from an attack, or holding up a shield. Yet here’s how they’re explained by Oromis:
“These wards, do they only drain energy from you when they are activated?”
“Then, given enough time, you acquire countless layers of wards. You could make yourself…” He struggled with the ancient language as he attempted to express himself. “…untouchable?… impregnable?…impregnable to any assault, magical or physical.”
“Wards,” said Oromis, “rely upon the strength of your body. If that strength is exceeded, you die. No matter how many wards you have, you will only be able to block attacks so long as your body can sustain the output of energy.”
- Eldest, page 378
So wards require energy to keep working—a battery, like all other kinds of magic—and only take energy when something hits it. If the battery dies, so do the wards. And now we reach a problem: mainly that wards never work this way in practice in the books. Eragon’s wards wear out when they’ve been hit enough times:
Eragon’s own wards were scant. Since he had lavished the bulk of his attention on Saphira and Roran, Eragon’s magical defenses soon failed, and the smaller Ra’zac wounded him on the outside of his left knee.
- Brisingr, page 48
This makes some amount of sense—a magical shield that breaks under enough pressure; or at least it would, if it weren’t for the fact that Oromis told us how wards work and this isn’t it. They’re supposed to last as long as the body still has energy to sustain them. Seeing as Eragon is quite active for the next few hours, he still has quite a bit of energy left, as well as wards around Saphira and Roran (though the ones on Saphira are apparently not very effective, as the Lethrblaka wounded her several times).
Remember how I said that a ward would, in theory, be like holding up a shield every time something came at you? In his battle with the Ra’zac and Lethrblaka, Eragon has put up wards around himself, Roran and Saphira, with at least two of those being attacked at the same time. While I did note that the wards around Saphira are failing, the fact remains that the amount of energy expended should be noticeably taxing Eragon.
And these are hardly the first problems to crop up on wards in Brisingr.
Recall this rule?
“…you should know that magic is affected by distance, just like an arrow or a spear. If you try to lift or move something a mile away, it’ll take more energy than if you were closer. So if you see enemies racing after you from a league away, let them approach before using magic.”
- Eragon, page 149
While this rule is mostly followed in the first novel, when wards come up it is completely disregarded.
On three occasions, Roran was sure the soldier was about to wound him, but the man’s saber twisted at the last moment and missed Roran, diverted by an unseen force. Roran was thankful for Eragon’s wards then.
- Brisingr, Page 403
This is the first raid that Roran is in while with the Varden. While Eragon is running across the map, Roran’s fighting off a horseman and somehow, Eragon’s wards are protecting him. Yes, Oromis said wards only cost energy when activated, but here they’re being activated and Eragon, who is currently crossing the countryside at a full run, is not feeling any of the effects. Paolini? This should be killing him.
Even if Paolini set up wards so that they shouldn’t kill Eragon from across the continent, it would make sense that he would at least feel it when they run out. He is the one who cast the spell, after all.
Lastly, we have our final issue, on how Riders learn magic. Brom specifically states that Riders aren’t told that they can use magic until they exhibit the ability. Students are set up to do impossible tasks until they’re frustrated enough to use magic. This seems like an interesting enough idea, but there’s a problem.
“So I’m limited by my knowledge of this language?”
“Exactly,” crowed Brom.
- Eragon, page 146
Magic is tied to language. So while an elven Dragon Rider might figure out how to use magic by saying something while incredibly frustrated because the AL is his/her first language, any human Rider is up a creek because they have no experience in the language. Granted, they could be in an environment that gives them minimum exposure to the AL, but this is still a huge leap to make.
And we know that words are the key to using magic. Brom directly says it in the chapter “Magic is the Simplest Thing” and the Twins specifically search for more AL words when they’re fishing around Eragon’s head. Like Brom says, one MUST know the language in order to use magic, and lack of knowledge would mean you cannot use magic. Which, if the elves have cut off contact with humans, means that human spellcasters are probably severely limited in what they can accomplish with magic. It’s like dropping a bunch of Catholics into a country where the inhabitants exclusively speak Latin and expecting them to be able to order a sandwich in Latin. Except, you know, more dangerous, as using magic incorrectly can kill you.
The magic of the Inheritance Cyle is, in short, broken. Normally, I’m perfectly fine with magic being an unexplainable phenomenon that just happens, but Paolini took pains to hammer out an exact system that works based on several rules. That he just goes and violates said rules is simply boggling and confusing.
It’s sad, because stories about a spellcaster who rides a dragon have the potential to be awesome. How does being bonded to a dragon affect magic? Would they really worry so much about complicated magic if their role in the world was to be peacekeepers? How can magic be used to complement combat? All of these are questions that are answered in the most awkward ways possible.
This magic system is just a jumbled mess. What started out as a simple enough system based on the basic (if a bit linguistically shoddy) AL became a tangled mess of mechanics that doesn’t work and serves no purpose but to confuse the reader. I remember getting to Brisingr and skimming all of the parts that explain or describe magic because it just made no sense.
Fantasy writers, take heed—don’t throw out continuity for the sake of making cool moments or so that your protagonist sounds smart.